GREEN BAY, Wis. – Moments after the NFL draft ended over the weekend, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy strode confidently to the podium in the team's media auditorium and among other telling comments, made the following statement:
"We're going to be a better defense this year," McCarthy promised. "You can write that in big letters."
Was McCarthy putting his defense – and coordinator Dom Capers – on notice?
Or was he just expressing confidence that the moves general manager Ted Thompson made this offseason combined with the changes he and Capers have planned will turn things around?
Either way, McCarthy has a recent history of making good on those kinds of proclamations. Last offseason, he made the same kind of promise about the running game, which had ranked 20th, 27th and 24th the previous three seasons.
Thanks in large part to the addition of Eddie Lacy combined with improved offensive line play and McCarthy's renewed commitment to running the ball, the Packers finished seventh in the league in rushing in 2013 – their first top 10 in McCarthy's tenure and their best since 2003 – and Lacy won the offensive rookie of the year award.
Since finishing 25th in yards allowed last season – a slide from 11th in 2012 when the defense rebounded from its horrific 2011 season in which it ranked last in the league – McCarthy and Capers have spent months examining every aspect of the defense.
"I think it's just a matter of getting a group and figuring out what they can do the best and adapting what they do to what we do best," Capers said earlier this offseason.
In some cases, the solution was to develop new roles for pass rushers like Mike Neal and Nick Perry, to expand the role of promising young defensive back Micah Hyde and to return veteran defensive lineman B.J. Raji to his old, more productive nose tackle spot.
"Our defensive staff has done a very diligent [job], has been very diligent in preparing the personnel groups, the expectations and how we're going to package these guys, so I feel with that going into the offseason program, we have an opportunity to be better," McCarthy said. "Health needs to be better, that will definitely help us."
In terms of adding players, Thompson did not go defensive-heavy in the draft. After signing one impact free agent, veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers, he used only four of his nine draft picks on that side of the ball. It's possible only one of them, first-round pick safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, will even challenge for a starting job. The others -- defensive tackle Khyri Thornton (third round), outside linebacker Carl Bradford (fourth round) and cornerback Demetri Goodson (sixth round) -- come in at crowded position groups where they will not just battle for playing time but first just to make the opening-day roster.
"The best way you get better is to improve those you already have and try to help those players get better and do better in all respects, in scouting, in coaching, everything," Thompson said after the draft. "We went into this draft wanting to make our team better, and obviously defense is a big part of our team."